Boeing's dream of a lean 787 production line only performing final assembly, integration and testing began to unravel when airframe sections arrived from suppliers around the world with unfinished work that the airframer's Everett, Washington plant was unequipped to complete.
This became clear on 16 January when the company announced another delay to the 787 programme, pushing first flight back three months to the end of June and first deliveries into early 2009. When it rolled out in July 2007, Dreamliner One was to fly by the end of August that year.
"We underestimated how long it would take to complete someone else's work," says Pat Shanahan, vice-president and general manager of the 787 programme. Announcement of the latest delay, on Shanahan's 90th day on the job, came after Boeing failed to meet its milestones for completing "travelled work" on the first aircraft.
"Everett is a lean facility tailored to last-stage, high-level assembly and test," he says. "We thought we accommodate work from our suppliers. Perhaps if we were set up like an MRO [maintenance, repair and overhaul organisation] we would have made more progress."
The Everett facility was designed to mate major airframe sections that arrived from suppliers fully assembled and stuffed with systems. Instead, Boeing workers have had to remove and replace thousands of temporary fasteners and install missing parts. It is completing this work that is now delaying first flight.
"Travelled work is the long pole," says Shanahan. Fastener and parts shortages are no longer pacing items. "One month ago aircraft number one was over 10,000 fasteners short. Now it is down to hundreds, and parts shortages are at a manageable level."
But until Boeing completes assembly of the fuselage it cannot install the wiring needed to put power on the aircraft, the next major milestone on the way to first flight. "We need to get the travelled work completed. It's the pacing item," he says.
"Of the several thousand part numbers and system components needed to activate the aircraft, we need only 27 more to get power on. By Monday [20 January] we will have all 27 parts," he says. "If the aircraft was available on Monday, with its wiring, tubing and ducting, we would be able to install all those system components."
But the aircraft is not ready. Power-on has been pushed back to the beginning of the second quarter, although Shanahan says Boeing is already running power-up build verification tests in the laboratory in Seattle. After power-on, he says, another 20 system components are needed to get the 787 through taxi tests.
The latest delay is humiliating for Boeing, which in December thought it was turning the corner on completing assembly of the aircraft. "Why is it taking so much time?" asks Shanahan. "It's not a matter of how quickly we can drill holes. It's the process of reconciling partner engineering with our production system that is the pacing item."
The previous plan to fly the 787 by the end of March was based on parametric analysis, not hands-on experience. "We had not done partner work in our facility. Now we have the demonstrated performance of the last two months, more knowledge of the work statement and more of the right skills and resources," he says.
"The focus now is on not travelling the type of work that is disruptive to our production system," he says. Boeing says aircraft two, and those behind it, "will arrive when the sections meet the required condition of assembly". Aircraft two is expected in Everett by the end of January "and will arrive in much better condition" than the first 787, it says.
Boeing expects to complete its assessment of the delay's impact on deliveries by the end of the first quarter, but it no longer expects to deliver 109 aircraft in 2009. "The shortages are not a rate production issue, it's a work sequence problem," Shanahan says. "If there is travelled work it has to be the right kind of work that Boeing can accommodate."